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Our Town

The Kahala turns 40


There's nothing like an anniversary to make you appreciate local icons. The Kähala Mandarin Oriental, formerly the Kähala Hilton, is quietly celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and, although it maintains a lower profile today than it did during its glory days, the Kähala remains one of Hawai'i's most celebrated getaways.

When the Kähala Hilton opened in 1964, the hotel made waves with its clean, modernist building style, designed by architect Edward Killingsworth. Architect Daniel Chun says the building's trellised, white exterior gave it an airy quality and allowed the huge structure to appear unobtrusive. "It's like putting lace on a dress, you disguise the bulkiness of the object by adding some delicacy to it," Chun says. "If you stripped all of that away-the pre-cast concrete vertical elements and the trellis on the roof-you'd just have a box sitting there."

The Ka-hala Mandarin Oriental as it appeared when it first opened in 1964 as the Kahala Hilton. Photo: Courtesy Kahala Mandarin Oriental

Despite its ethereal quality, the Kähala got off to a slow start. A 15-minute-drive from tourist mecca Waikïkï, it seemed a remote, uninviting destination. Hotel management had to turn on lights in empty rooms to keep the resort from looking like a dark, deserted failure.

Within a few years, though, the hotel's isolation became an asset, as Mainland celebrities and local high society discovered the benefits of anonymous luxury. By 1967, the Kähala enjoyed a 90-percent occupancy rate. Eddie Sherman, who chronicled the juicy happenings of the city as The Honolulu Advertiser's three-dot columnist in the '60s and '70s, remembers the Hilton heyday fondly. "You can't believe the names that stayed there. I was fishing in a loaded pool. I'd be there every weekend, my son would swim in the pool and I would just hang out with the celebrities and BS." It was Sherman who dubbed the hotel the "Ka-Hollywood Hilton."

Notable guests included Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Johnny Carson and Lucille Ball. The Kähala Hilton's reputation got an additional shot in the arm in 1968, when the cast of Hawai'i 5-0 rolled into town. The hotel was often featured in the cop drama's plots, and guest stars were always booked into the Kähala while in town.

In 1994, the Kähala Hilton became the Kähala Mandarin Oriental Hotel, after a 1992 lease negotiation increased the annual rent from $96,000 to $5.6 million, forcing owners WKH Corp. to sell the hotel to local developer Bill Mills and Tokyo General Corp. Kähala Hilton fans quibble over the merit of subsequent renovations, but the hotel's overall aesthetic remains as classy as ever. In fact, Chun wishes there was more Honolulu architecture like the Kähala: "I think, unfortunately, it hasn't had enough impact. We just need a different kind of architectural design here-more minimalist, less heroic, less Euro-centric. The more the architecture disappears, the more visitors like it."

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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